Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gerhard Forde's Radical Preaching of Baptism

Gerhard Forde, the great Luther scholar, spent a lifetime emphasizing the acute reality of death in and through the rite of baptism. Forde emphasizes a certain death that takes place in Christ. He emphasizes the past tense reality of dying in Christ, “You have died! And there is nothing to do about that now but say it.” Forde preaches in a unique way, not explicitly addressing baptism and what Lutherans call “means of grace.” Yet he addresses an aspect of baptism that is often left behind, death! Baptism is not so much seeing as dying a certain death and being resurrected in the body of Christ. It is more popular to speak of baptism as a helpful improvement of one’s life where one is cleansed. However, before any cleansing there must be a serious “house cleaning,” or a removal of that mess which was in the way. This old Adam, the mess, must be properly extinguished or put to death before a cleansing and purification of the new man. This is a common element in the miracle account in Mark. Lepers and those possessed with demons are first exorcized by Jesus before the cleansing process begins (1:26, 42). Likewise in baptism the old man is first exorcized, thus killed, making way for the new creation. It is worth noting, that this exchange be seen in light of the cross. It must be seen through the blessed cross, the pierced side with rushing blood and water, that baptism and this exchange is made possible.

Reformed theologians, and most protestant church bodies would deny the cosmic reality of death in baptism, as Forde sees it. A world that has seen the Enlightenment and the so called “Age of Reason” certainly rejects this death because it implies the reality of satan, with all his demons. The supernatural is denied and only that which is verified by the empirical process is real. Yet denying the death in baptism denies the life that is miraculously produced in place of death. How is there a new life in Christ without death? Denying the element of exorcism in baptism would make the initiation more like a helpful initiative to an “improved” lot before God. The absence of death would imply that there was indeed already spiritual life prior to the inititation. Therefore baptism would become like being in a sick bed, being nursed by to health. Yet God’s revelation does not suggest any of this – for Forde’s homily text ascertains that we are dead with Christ. Not sick, not recuperating, not mildly affected but dead (Col. 2:20).

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